The Brooklyn origins of Russ & Daughters
When the fourth-generation lox and bagel sellers moved into the Navy Yard last year, it was a homecoming.
This bagels and lox empire was born in Brooklyn.
Culinary phenomenon Russ & Daughters, which has been part of the Lower East Side’s business community for more than a century, has deep Brooklyn roots.
The smoked-fish seller has come full circle, back to Brooklyn where it all began, with a food-manufacturing facility and shop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The business started some food production at its Navy Yard facility in late 2018 and opened its Navy Yard shop in February 2019.
Russ & Daughters makes half-a-million bagels per year at its operation in the Navy Yard’s Building 77 — all weighing a modest four ounces, a bagel’s traditional size.
“This is what will allow us to stay planted in New York for decades and hopefully generations to come. We have the space and we have a stable home base,” fourth-generation Russ family member Niki Russ Federman, who grew up in Park Slope and lives there now, said about the 141 Flushing Ave. production space.
“The Navy Yard is not going anywhere, and it’s a mission-driven nonprofit. For them, it’s really about creating jobs,” Federman, who co-owns Russ & Daughters with her cousin Josh Russ Tupper, told the Brooklyn Eagle.
The 300-acre Navy Yard is a hub for manufacturing, artisanal and tech businesses that belongs to the city of New York. The nonprofit Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. manages it. In October, Rochester-based chain Wegmans opened a 74,000-square-foot supermarket on a publicly accessible Navy Yard site.
Russ & Daughters’ food-manufacturing space at the yard is glassed in, so customers can watch bagels being boiled and babkas being baked. They can also walk up a staircase for a bird’s eye view of the work that’s being done.
The bagels and lox purveyor is known for slicing its smoked salmon so transparently thin that you can read the New York Times through it, as journalist/humorist/novelist Calvin Trillin has observed.
In addition to its East Houston Street shop and its Brooklyn Navy Yard bakery, kitchens and store, Russ & Daughters has cafes on the Lower East Side and at the Upper East Side’s Jewish Museum.
The company’s saga started on Brooklyn’s Myrtle Avenue, where Joel Russ from Strzyzow, in what is modern-day Poland, went to live with his sister Chana Ebbin in 1907.
“That was his launching pad, his first home,” said Federman, who is Russ’s great-granddaughter.
His sister sponsored Russ’s move to America after her husband, with whom she had five kids, decided to stop working and become a Talmudic scholar, said Federman. Ebbin wanted some help in supporting her family.
Federman said she doesn’t know exactly where on Myrtle Avenue they lived. It could possibly have been just up the street from the Navy Yard.
Ebbin, who had herself started peddling fish to earn a living, set up her brother with his own barrel of herring to sell to fellow Eastern European Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side, Federman said.
Later, when he could afford it, he got a pushcart to ply his trade. After that, he got a horse and wagon. In 1914, he had the resources to open a shop on the Lower East Side, initially living in the back of the store.
When Russ achieved a measure of financial success, he moved back to Brooklyn, to a house he bought at 715 Ave. O in Midwood, Federman said. By that time, he was married and had a family of his own. According to Federman, her great-grandmother Bella was happy to move out of the Lower East Side.
When the Great Depression hit, Russ’s bankers told him he was over-leveraged and gave him a grim choice: Give up your shop or your home. He moved his family out of the house and into the back of the shop.
Joel and Bella Russ had three daughters and no sons. Hattie, Ida and Anne started working for their father when they were teens. In the 1930s, Russ made them full-fledged partners in the business and added the words “& Daughters” to its name. It was the first company in the United States with “& Daughters” in its name instead of “& Sons.”
Federman said her great-grandfather’s decision to rename the shop was “so rare, and controversial. I mean, he got a lot of flak for that from people. They couldn’t understand why he would diminish the integrity of his business by calling it ‘& Daughters.’”
Her grandmother was Anne Russ Federman, who died in 2018.
After the Depression was over, the Russ family moved to Far Rockaway. Federman’s parents, Mark Russ Federman and Maria Federman, moved to Park Slope in the late 1970s. Mark quit practicing law and became the company’s third-generation owner when the three daughters of Russ & Daughters and their husbands retired in 1979.
Maria and Mark Russ Federman ran the business until 2009, when their daughter and nephew became the owners.
“My cousin Josh and I feel like we are stewards of preserving a tradition, of preserving the traditional way that we do things, but innovating and moving it forward and continuing to make it relevant to today,” Federman said.
During a walk through Russ & Daughters’ Navy Yard facility, Federman pointed out ways that workers are keeping tradition alive. They have traditional methods for making bagels, with steps that include boiling them in a kettle and baking them on burlap-covered wood planks. The process takes two days.
The bakery is kosher, which enables Russ & Daughters to supply its cafe at the Jewish Museum, where being kosher is a requirement.
A few years ago, Russ & Daughters started making their own bagels because the independent bakeries that had supplied them were dying out.
A lot of large commercial bakeries pump sugar and additives into their bagels, which Russ & Daughters won’t do.
“We have for a long time felt like we were swimming upstream,” said Federman, who believes that “a bagel really should be a platform for the spreads and the fish that you put on it” and not a big doughy mass.
Bakers at Russ & Daughters’ Navy Yard manufacturing space also make traditional desserts, like rugelach and black and white cookies, and classic breads like shissel rye, which has black Nigella seeds and caraway seeds in it.
In a room called a hot kitchen that’s separate from the bakery, workers make 1,000 latkes a day except during Hanukkah, when they turn out 5,000 of the potato pancakes daily.
The Russ & Daughters shop in the Navy Yard has counters with lower heights than the ones in its iconic Lower East Side store so customers can more easily see employees hand-slicing smoked fish.
“At the original store, the customers are always contorting their bodies because they want to watch. And it’s very hard to see through the counter there,” Federman said.
A family of knife sharpeners grinds and shapes the knives that workers use to cut fish. The knives also need to be flexible.
“Slicing is an art. It’s a craft. It takes months and months and months to learn. And we’re training the next generation of slicers here,” Federman said.
Another Russ & Daughters tradition: The Navy Yard shop has a Take a Number dispenser with paper tickets so customers don’t have to stand in line while they wait their turn to be served.
Also traditional is the neon Russ & Daughters sign, decorated with neon fish, above the entrance to the shop inside the Navy Yard. It looks a lot like the sign on the outside of the Lower East Side store — with one noteworthy difference. The one at the Navy Yard is 40 feet across, while the Lower East Side sign is 20 feet across.
Federman said she was embarrassed by the size of the Navy Yard sign when it was first installed. It seemed grandiose.
Then she realized the glowing sign is visible through Building 77’s glassed-in entrance to people out in the street, which makes it a “great wayfinder,” she said.
Speaking of tradition, don’t call the Navy Yard or Lower East Side Russ & Daughters shops delicatessens. Delis were created to sell cured and pickled meats. According to Jewish dietary laws, these products shouldn’t be sold in the same stores as dairy products.
Russ & Daughters shops are “appetizing stores,” which according to Jewish food traditions is where fish and dairy products are sold.
When Russ & Daughters started making bagels, they initially set up a 5,000-square-foot bakery in Bushwick. The space soon seemed too small for them.
One day, Federman was chatting in her Lower East Side store with a customer and friend, Hank Gutman. He told her he was retiring from his law career and taking on the position of Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. chairperson.
When Federman told him she’d recently been looking for manufacturing space, he urged her to go see Building 77. The windowless warehouse, which was constructed in 1942, was being renovated and turned into a job-creation hub.
In a day or so, Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. President and CEO David Ehrenberg called Federman and arranged for her to visit. At that point, the building wasn’t yet ready for tenants. The floors were gravel and there were no interior walls.
“But I had the same feeling coming into this space that I know people have coming into Russ & Daughters, which is that you sense that you are in the midst of living history,” Federman recalled. “And I felt that there’s a synergy here.”
The Brooklyn Navy Yard came into existence in 1801, and was a U.S. government shipbuilding facility until its 1966 closing. The list of important naval ships built there includes the USS Ohio, which was launched in 1820, and the USS Arizona, which the Japanese sank in their Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
About 70,000 people worked at the Navy Yard during World War II.
The space Russ & Daughters rented at the Navy Yard is three times the size of its initial production facility in Bushwick.
Ehrenberg told the Eagle the Navy Yard is thrilled Russ & Daughters has moved in.
“In Building 77, they have the space they need to expand their food production and distribution, meaning more New Yorkers can enjoy their famed bagels and smoked fish. The outpost also serves as a needed dining destination for employees at the Yard and visitors to the area,” Ehrenberg said. “I, for one, am a huge fan of the chocolate babka. And in my house, we have it with cottage cheese — a long-held tradition in my family that I now share with my kids.”
Russ & Daughters is “an iconic New York institution” and “a critical part of what makes the Navy Yard such a vibrant and growing community,” Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corp. Chairperson Gutman told the Eagle.
“We were delighted that Niki and Josh decided to join us at the Navy Yard. They have been a perfect addition to our family — not only creating lots of quality jobs working with our employment center, but supporting the efforts of our STEAM Center high school, collaborating with other yard tenants and making an entire area of the yard smell delicious as they bake their delicacies,” Gutman said.
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